Scientists at the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute are working on a project to develop frost-tolerant varieties of bio-fuel bearing Jatropha plant for large-scale plantation in the US.
The research is being funded by automobile giant General Motors. According to GM India's president and managing director, Karl Sym, the Institute will grow Jatropha varieties on 83 hectares of land for research purpose under the agreement.
While researchers at the Institute will try to develop frost-tolerant varieties, they will also attempt to increase bio-fuel conversion efficiency of the plant. CSMCRI scientists will also see whether the plant could be modified to withstand severe climatic conditions, according to a report by Technology Review India.
Frost tolerance has emerged as one of the requirements if Jatropha has to be commercially cultivated in the southern part of the US and Latin America. Jatropha Curcas plant is a native plant of Brazil.
So far all attempts to grow Jatropha Curcas on commercial scale have not succeeded due to the havoc wreaked by frost on this otherwise hardy crop. If CSMCRI scientists manage to genetically alter the crop to make it frost-tolerant, it will be a major scientific breakthrough, says Narayanan Suresh, Editor of Technology Review India.
To reduce pressure on bio-fuel crops replacing food crops, government policies restrict cultivation of Jatropha to degraded wastelands. Hence, CSMCRI scientists are also trying to make the plants adapt better to very harsh environmental conditions that prevail in many parts of the country.
Pushpito Ghosh, director of CSMCRI, said scientists would also try to prepare a full environmental life cycle of Jatropha. The results will provide useful scientific data in the light of the Jatropha and other bio-fuel plants being criticised as being not very efficient in terms of improving the environmental conditions.
There are over 175 varieties of this succulent plant that grows widely throughout the tropics and in parts of North America, Caribbean, and Africa. The oil is extracted from the non-edible seeds and has been used successfully as a bio-fuel in automobiles.
In fact, GM itself ran some of its vehicles on an experimental basis for over 15,000 km on bio-diesel and the energy efficiency has been found to be very good. This has prompted the company to develop bio-diesel-bearing plants in as many areas as possible. British Petroleum in July last year had abandoned midway a similar project to improve oil-bearing capabilities of Jatropha.
BP was working with its British partner D1 oils on this. If the project had succeeded, BP planned to invest over $160 million to grow the crop on a large scale and use it as feedstock for bio-fuel projects in large quantities.